EARLY this year, a Bangladesh construction worker fell to his death when a floor collapsed in a multi-storey building under construction in Taman Teknologi Subang Hi-Tech, Shah Alam. Media only referred to the man as “Kassim”. He crashed 14m down, along with steel reinforcement rods and the cement mixture.
According to the 2016 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, Malaysia has one of the highest number of deaths of Nepali migrant workers, followed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Migrants workers have been with us for decades and they are with us, mainly, because of employment, regardless of whether they are documented or not.
They are not refugees as refugees migrate due to political conflict and/or threat to their lives at their home countries.
However, in Malaysia there is poor documentation and registration to establish the number of migrants and various sources have offered differing estimates.
The Immigration Department said that the number of documented migrant workers has dropped from 2.06 million in 2008 to 1.76 million as at July 31, 2018. It estimated that for every documented migrant worker, there are 2.5 undocumented ones. Together, they could number six million or one-fifth of Malaysia’s population of 30 million.
Low wages, little skills and exploited
The Department of Statistics in 2016 showed that most of the documented migrant workers are in agriculture (37.3%), with 21.2% in manufacturing, construction (22.4%), domestic and service workers (9.2%) and mining (4.9%). They are in jobs that are termed as “dirty, difficult and dangerous”. Migrant workers are poorly paid by employers and as a result it is difficult for wages to increase, especially in low-skilled jobs.
In 2018, Bank Negara argued that due to depressed low wages, Malaysia “risks being trapped in a low-wage, low-skill conundrum”. The consequence is that “it locks Malaysia further into (only attracting) lower value-added processes to Malaysia, while investors move higher productivity and value-added processes to neighbouring economies such as Singapore and China.”
Yet low wages continue for the migrants who fill the job gaps where locals do not want to be employed. Migrants who are supposed to work and build our economy face exploitation as they are placed in vulnerable situations, documented or not. Lack of legal contracts deprive protection of workers’ rights such as proper rest days, statutory benefits, healthcare and insurance that are enjoyed by local workers.
Passports are withheld by employers which restrict workers’ mobility and subject them to arrest, ill-treatment and extortion by the police when they are found without proper documents. If they have entered without proper documents, they are further exploited and made victims of trafficking.
Non-unionisation of migrants makes them voiceless and without proper channels to direct their grievances such as non-payment, wrongful deduction of wages, unfair dismissal, sub-standard living conditions and lack of compensation against industrial injuries.
Worse, when there is an industrial dispute, a three-month special pass is issued by the Immigration Department at RM100 a month, but it forbids employment. As such, cases are usually dropped as workers are unable to bear the legal expenses.
Staring at our faces, we have the death of Indonesian maid, Adelina Sao. The court freed the accused and classified it as “tragic death”.
In 2018, Suyanti Sutrinso, aged 19, received multiple injuries, including to the eyes, hands and feet, and internal organs. The accused was bound over for five years for good behaviour.
How many more have suffered, gone unnoticed and unrepresented and when brought to court, the accused have got away with lighter sentences or freed? Violence against migrants has to stop.
Inadequate legal framework
Malaysia’s regulation of migration policy seems to only meet short-term labour supply and maximising economic value instead of longer-term resolution. It is undeniable that there are laws that do provide some protection to local and migrant workers.
The Employment Act 1955 prohibits the termination of a local worker unless the employer first terminates the employment of all migrant workers employed in a similar capacity as that of the local worker.
The Employees Provident Fund scheme does not impose compulsory contribution on a migrant worker, but if the worker chooses to contribute, the employer will have to contribute a minimum of RM5.
The Social Security Organisation does give some coverage to migrant workers with a maximum claim of RM23,000, varying with the age of the worker.
Implementation of the law is below par and having legislative barriers further entrenches discrimination and vulnerabilities.
Much needs to be done for migrant workers and to accord them with their rights and freedom. After many May Day calls, sustainable policies need to be implemented to take care of migrant workers, economically, legally as well as their social welfare.
To start with, we ourselves, need to begin treating them as we would our house guests; in peaceful and compassionate ways. By setting higher employment standards with our domestic laws and using the Sustainable Development Goals and other international instruments, Malaysia can do better to accord justice and respect to workers.
Access to formal employment, education and health care for migrant workers and families will provide better protection and greatly assist in government data collection to enable preventive measures and intervention.
The integrity of Malaysia’s borders and immigration will be protected, as mixed flows of individuals moving irregularly will be monitored and managed through official channels.
More importantly, happy workers play an important part in building a more resilient economy.
By so doing, we will help to improve their lives and provide for their families. Additionally, having more sustainable pathways towards self-reliance and improving employability through technical and vocational training would provide migrant workers with the opportunities to seek employment including self-employment, as well as prevent them from entering into negative coping mechanisms, such as begging and crime to survive.
Legal framework needs to be improved to provide better employment protection as well as to end violence against migrant workers. Legal recourse through the Industrial Relations Department or Labour Court must grant special permission to leave existing workplaces and seek employment elsewhere to prevent them from becoming undocumented. Strengthening regulation of recruitment agencies, salaries, visa costs and other immigration matters will help to reduce costs.
Migrant workers are here to work. Malaysia can show our guests our humanity as a whole, and as a community of mutual responsibility and respect, that we can share equal protection for all workers.